* CPAs can use Web sites to store many years of data, permitting clients quick and easy access 24/7. The sites, also called reporting portals, can handle data that are formatted in many different ways.
* Data that are otherwise hard to display can be formatted without any special technology so they can be read by a Web browser.
* A special function in Excel can transform a static file being uploaded to a Web site to a dynamic, or interactive, file. Typical dynamic worksheets are loan-payment calculators and pivot tables, whose data adjust when their underlying information change.
* Easy access to sensitive client data comes with a price. You don't want such information to be easily accessible to everyone, so you must implement very effective security measures.
* If your organization's Internet site does not have effective security, you have two choices: Hire a Web consultant with security experience or rent a professionally managed site and let its specialists set up a security system for you.
How do you distribute financial reports to clients, shareholders and key people in your organization? If you're low-tech, you probably mail them. If you've been following my, suggestions of several years ago, you create hyperlinks in Excel files and e-mail the files so clients can drill down into them for details (see "Financial Reports in a Snap," JofA, Apr.00, page 31). But today's technology lets you do it a better way: uploading all clients' financial information to a Web site so they can access current and past reports 24/7, no matter how the data originally were formatted. If you want to learn how to do that, read on.
As you know, client data come in different formats. For example, tax software programs calculate and display returns with proprietary technology, and usually are able to convert themselves into the free Web-friendly Adobe Acrobat (files with a .pdf extension). Tax professionals usually prepare support data for schedule D basis computations in Excel, which isn't native to a Web browser, but it, too, can convert itself to hypertext markup language (HTML) so browsers can read it. P&L statements, which CPAs usually calculate and display with proprietary accounting software programs, also can translate themselves into Adobe Acrobat. Thus CPAs can easily store this virtual Tower of Babel of financial information, and clients can easily access it any time of the day or night via a Web site without any special technology.
A Web site also lets you extend Excel's presentation in a very powerful way If you display a static worksheet, such as a balance sheet, and change only a single number on it, you have to replace the entire worksheet. But a special function in Excel transforms a static file being uploaded to a Web site into a dynamic, or interactive, file. Typical dynamic worksheets are loan-payment calculators and pivot tables, whose data adjust when their underlying information changes; there's no need to upload a whole new worksheet.
A BANK OF DATA
Now that we've described the flexibility and diversity of information that can be stored on the Web, let's see what such a site, also called a reporting portal, looks like. Exhibit 1, page 66, shows a screenshot of a typical opening page of a portal created by a CPA firm. As you can see, it contains three years of data--2003 to 2005--for client John Smith.
A click on any of the years' icons drills down to three further choices for that period: a .pdf copy of the client's 2004 final tax return, an HTML version of an Excel file on schedule D basis support and a .pdf version of final QuickBooks financial statements (exhibit 2).
If a client is applying for a mortgage, say, and needs a copy of last year's tax return and a current P&L statement, all he or she has to do is open the portal and click on a few icons for immediate access. …